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Molting

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The thing is, Chloé never should’ve left.

When her father approaches her about a weeklong vacation – he has some business to do in Italy, and he wants her to come, since normally she jumps at the chance to go with him - she’s initially reluctant, which doesn’t make Mayor Bourgeois very happy. He’s never been brave enough to come right out and say it, but he doesn’t like the fact that she’s Queen Bee. He thinks it’s dangerous and would much rather that she left the duties of being a miraculous holder to Ladybug, Chat Noir and Filou.

He would think that even more if he knew how close she came to dying when fighting Ursa Major, which is exactly why Chloé will be forever grateful that footage from that fight hasn’t surfaced in the past two weeks. The last thing she needs is to have an on-going fight with her father over whether or not it’s safe for her to go fight every time an akuma surfaces.

Anyway, because of her duties as Queen Bee, Chloé can’t just drop everything and swan off whenever she wants to. There’s a reason she has permission to keep her miraculous at all times now; Ladybug and Chat Noir are depending on Queen Bee to be there when an akuma attacks, particularly since Filou has only been in a couple of fights and is still very much trying to get his feet under him.

But when she brings it up in conversation, Marinette sensibly points out that she and Adrien have been handling everything without too much trouble until now, and that they do have Filou to fall back on. Plus, it’s only for a week. What can happen in a week?

Famous last words.

She keeps an eye on the news and the Ladyblog while she’s gone, but honestly Chloé’s first inkling that something is wrong is when she gets off the plane. She’s feeling grumpy, tense and depressed after spending a whole week with Audrey Bourgeois (and, mental note, she really needs to explain to her father the difference between a good surprise and a very shitty surprise).

She takes out her phone and powers it on. Amidst a flurry of Facebook and Instagram notifications, she sees a message from Nathaniel of all people. He may be a miraculous holder on occasion now, but they don’t hang out at school and he never messages her. She furrows her eyebrows at the sight of his name and warily unlocks her phone to see the full message.

11:18pm Nathaniel: you are back at school tomorrow, right?

That’s it. One single line, seven words, and that’s all it takes to make Chloé stop dead in her tracks. A heavy feeling seeps into her chest. She wants to message him back, but it’s almost 5am and it’s unlikely Nathaniel is awake yet, much less hovering over his phone waiting for a response. Chloé scowls, rubbing her chest idly with her free hand. She hadn’t planned on going to school today; it’s Friday, she’s exhausted on more than one level, and she wanted the weekend to sleep.

“Chloé,” Mayor Bourgeois calls out. “Come along. Time to go. We’ve got our luggage now.”

“Right,” Chloé says, walking over to him. “I’ve changed my mind, Daddy. I am going to school after all.”

Mayor Bourgeois looks shocked. “But – but Chloé, I thought you said –”

“I know what I said. I changed my mind,” Chloé snaps, stalking outside the airport. The sight of the sun slowly starting to rise over Paris settles something inside of her that’s been a little off all week, but it does nothing to lessen the edginess burning a new hole in her chest.

And then, in the distance towards the center of the city, they hear the explosion.

“Oh dear,” says Mayor Bourgeois fretfully.

“Sir, it appears there’s an akuma attack in progress. We should get you to safety,” says one of the security guys.

“Right.” Mayor Bourgeois nods briskly and beckons to Chloé. “Let’s go. We can stay in my office until that business is taken care of.”

“Your office?” Chloé repeats, staring at him like he’s dumb. Her father sometimes, honestly.

“It will be safer than trying to get to the hotel,” he says.

Chloé rolls her eyes so hard that it hurts. “Pollen, buzz on!”

Yellow magic brightens the air around her; Queen Bee snaps her wrist and grabs hold of her stinger. She must look as pissed off as she feels because the security team scatters out of her way. Mayor Bourgeois stutters some weak protests behind her that Queen Bee ignores as she throws out her stinger. It wraps around a statute in the distance and promptly yanks her off her feet.

In less than five minutes, she’s almost to the battle. As she gets closer, she takes in the scene with narrowed eyes. The akuma looks like a human-size robot. It’s currently parrying with Chat Noir, who is clearly struggling. Queen Bee spares a second or two to wonder how long the battle has been going on for before she decides she doesn’t really care. Time to see what her stinger will do to a robot.

She lands right behind the robot and bellows, “Venom!” right before stabbing it in the spine with her pulsing stinger.

“What the –” Chat yelps in surprise and leaps backwards in shock as green electricity arches over the robot. It convulses, shaking from head to toe, and then topples over right where Chat was standing. They both stare at it for a moment in silence before Chat looks up at her with huge eyes.

“Hi,” Queen Bee says casually. “My plane was early.”

“I… I see that,” Chat says faintly, looking down at the akuma. “Have I ever told you what impeccable timing you have?” He nudges at the robot’s shoulder with a boot, but nothing happens.

“Tell me when I don’t have a tension headache,” Queen Bee says, looking down at the akuma with distaste. “Where’s Ladybug?”

“Um… she was going to go get Filou, actually,” Chat admits. “We… weren’t expecting you.”

Queen Bee nods absently, scanning the akuma for an object. When she doesn’t find one, she and Chat carefully flip the akuma over onto its back. It beeps feebly and they both freeze, but nothing happens. Chat casts her a wary look and then grabs his baton, extending it. He pokes at the flap of paper sticking out of the robot’s neck until it comes free; Queen Bee grabs it and unfolds it to find a photograph of a father and daughter playing with robots.

“What’s your bet, dad or daughter?” she asks.

Chat steps closer and leans over her shoulder to look too. “Hmm… I’m gonna say daughter.”

“I say dad. Loser buys winner a coffee?”

“Deal.”

“What have I told you about betting on akumas?” Ladybug says, landing right beside them, and both Chat and Queen Bee jump. Queen Bee looks around for Filou but doesn’t see him.

Chat flashes Ladybug a disarming smile. “Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight, My Lady?”

Ladybug just shoots him an unimpressed look and turns to Queen Bee. “I just got to Master Fu’s when I heard everything stop. I figured either Chat had won, or something had gone very wrong, and either way I didn’t have time to go for Filou,” she explains. It makes sense, but the explanation doesn’t make Queen Bee happy. She wants to know what Nathaniel meant, damnit!

“Ready?” Queen Bee says, holding up the photograph. Ladybug takes her yoyo in hand and nods. Queen Bee rips the photograph in half, and a dark purple butterfly flutters out; she automatically takes a huge step back, hair on the back of her neck prickling uncomfortably. She’s been akumatized three times now and has zero desire to go for an even four.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Ladybug murmurs when the butterfly tries to fly away. Her yoyo snaps out. “I free you from evil! Gotcha! Bye bye, little butterfly. Miraculous Ladybug!”

She throws her Lucky Charm into the air and it explodes into streams of red light. Queen Bee turns an expectant look on the akuma and smirks victoriously as a confused, older man is returned to himself. Chat groans under his breath and pouts. Ladybug frowns at the both of them before walking over to the older man and taking his hand to help him to his feet.

“Here you are, Sir,” she says politely, handing the photograph back. “This is yours, right?”

“Ladybug? Oh – yes, that’s mine. What happened? I was looking at this photograph of my daughter… she doesn’t like robots anymore, you see, and I just got so sad…” The man looks bewildered as he takes in Chat and Queen Bee.

“It’s okay now,” Ladybug says soothingly.

Queen Bee leans over to Chat. “You owe me a coffee.”

“Story of my life,” Chat says, crossing his arms. “How’d you know?”

“Just had a feeling,” Queen Bee says carelessly, rather than explain that she’s noticed that children’s akumas tend towards brighter colors and more abstract designs. This robot akuma was both silver and streamlined.

He gives her a suspicious look but relents. “Fine, what do you want?”

“It’s like 5:30 in the morning. I didn’t sleep at all last night because we had to be at the airport so early and I spent the whole week with my mother. What do you think I want?” Queen Bee says, much more snappishly than she intends, but she has a feeling and, now that the akuma is gone, she can’t ignore it. Something is wrong and she doesn’t like it.

Chat is quiet for a moment before he steps closer and wraps an arm around her shoulder. “How about breakfast? My treat. You, me, Marinette and Nathaniel. We’ll go to that place you like. Call it team bonding.”

“Yeah, okay,” Queen Bee says, leaning against him. Adrien knows her too well.

Ladybug walks back over to them and, through a yawn, says, “I am so tired.”

“Let’s get breakfast,” says Chat, holding his other arm out to her. Ladybug slips under it and they both cuddle him for a moment. Chat literally purrs in contentment, right up until his stomach grumbles and ruins the moment.

“I’ll get Nathaniel,” Queen Bee says, regretfully slipping away. She throws out her stinger and is gone before either of them can respond, launching herself up to the rooftops. Nathaniel’s family’s apartment isn’t too far away when you travel by rooftops; she’s only been there once, but she remembers the way.

Fortunately, it seems like Nathaniel’s developed a smart habit of sleeping with his bedroom window open. Queen Bee lands lightly on the ledge and spares a quick glance around the room. It’s surprisingly messy, with clothes and other things heaped all over the place. The only two neat spots are the bed and a desk that is loaded down with every imaginable art supply.

Queen Bee slides silently inside and stalks over to the bed just as her transformation gives out. Pollen flutters down onto her shoulder with a sleepy yawn. Nathaniel jerks awake moments later to find her looming over him, hands on her hips; to his credit, he doesn’t scream. He just stares at her blankly for a few seconds, as though trying to assess how real she is, before letting out a long sigh.

“I suppose I should’ve expected this,” he remarks.

“What is this about?” Chloé says, holding her phone up with his text on the screen.

“Good morning to you too, Chloé.”

She folds her arms and stares. “What’s going on at school?”

Nathaniel sits up, running a hand through his hair. “It’s Lila.”

Chloé goes very still. “Tell me.”

“She’s been spreading rumors about Marinette, saying that Marinette is Mayura,” Nathaniel says.

What?!” Chloé hisses.

“I know.” Nathaniel shakes his head, looking tired. “She pointed out that Marinette is absent almost every time there’s an akuma, because Marinette leaves every time there’s an akuma and she’s always late coming back afterwards. And she said that a lot of people around Marinette have been akumatized. People in our class, that kid Marinette baby-sits, Alya’s sisters, Adrien’s bodyguard and dad, André the ice cream guy and Juleka’s mom after Marinette met them, Marinette’s dad and her uncle…”

“That doesn’t mean anything!” Chloé says. “Lots of people have been akumatized!”

“I’m aware of that, but people at our school are thinking about it. Marinette’s reputation never really recovered after Lila showed up. A lot of people still think she did everything Lila said she did.” Nathaniel sighs.

Chloé presses her lips together into a thin line, fighting to contain the rage building up in her. “But that’s dumb,” she says when she can speak without shrieking uncontrollably. “Mayura didn’t even show up until Heroes Day!” There’s a definite buzzing sound filling the air.

“People, and by people I mean Lila, say that Marinette has been in cahoots with Hawkmoth since day one, and, now that he completely trusts her, he’s given her a miraculous. And then she pointed out that Marinette showed up at school after lunch that day just as the red butterflies were being released, and that Mayura and Marinette have never been seen together.” Nathaniel scowls as he speaks. “It’s… it’s not good, Chloé. People are really giving Marinette a hard time.”

“I’m gonna kill Lila,” Chloé decides.

“Okay,” Nathaniel says.

They look at each other for a moment.

Then Nathaniel shrugs. “Can I help?”

“Yes,” Chloé says. “But first, I have to yell at a cat and bug for not telling me about this. Come on.”

“Just let me get dressed. Wait outside.”